HOUSE Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez on late Tuesday afternoon said President Rodrigo Duterte will raise P1.5 trillion to support various measures, including at least P836.4 billion for the economic stimulus package to save the jobs of 30 million workers during the survival period triggered by the deadly coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Uulitin ko po. This package is meant to rescue 29 million Filipinos, or exactly 29,630,194 workers, from threats of joblessness or reduced income due to the Enhanced Community Quarantine,” Romualdez pointed out during Tuesday’s Defeat COVID-19 Committee (DCC) technical working group (TWG) meeting of the economic stimulus package cluster that he presided.
“Dapat mabigyan ng ayuda ang mga negosyante para patuloy na mapasuweldo ang kanilang mga empleyado. Kailangang siguruhin na bukas ang negosyo at patuloy ang komersyo,” Romualdez, a DCC co-chairman along with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.
During the TWG meeting, Finance Sec. Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez III thanked the Cayetano-Romualdez House-led leadership for working early on the measures that would support the Philippine economy during COVID-19 onslaught.
"The total amount of funds we have now committed to combat the virus is now P1.491 trillion," said Dominguez who earlier said that the government was looking at P1.17 trillion for COVID-19 response measures. "This is right now close to $30 billion which is already 8% of our GDP (gross domestic product) last year."
P1 BILLION GUARANTEE FOR PRIVATE SCHOOLS
Dominguez also bared during the meeting that Land Bank of the Philippines (LandBank) is now looking at the proposal to provide loan guarantee program for private schools facing unpaid tuition and fees.
He explained that displaced overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) could be the main beneficiaries of the measure by giving them the opportunity to hone their skills by enrolling to private schools for possible job prospects.
"The program is essentially for private schools. If private schools provide a 'study now, pay later' program and get a promissory note from the student to the private school, Landbank can lend [finances to] the private schools against that promissory note, probably 70% to 75% of the value of the promissory note. That is a program we are looking at," said Dominguez.
30-DAY PAID LEAVE
Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) president Rolando Macasaet proposed to the Cayetano-Romualdez-led panel the additional 30-day paid leave credits to government employees who will be afflicted by COVID-19.
"What you can do is all those employees who get sick, you just give them an additional 30 day leave credits instead of allocating more funds for them," said Macasaet in response to the proposed Philippine Economic Recovery Act (PERA) or the consolidated “National Stimulus Strategy Act” of Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda and the “Economy Moving Forward as One Act” of Marikina City Rep. Stella Quimbo.
"For instance, a person, assuming a government employee, goes on quarantine for 15 days and gets sick for 15 days, he continues on receiving his salary for the next 30 days. This would be in addition to his regular paid sick leave credits," Macasaet explained.
Under PERA, the GSIS and the Social Security System (SSS) are mandated to provide employee compensation to government agencies and business entities, respectively “in the form of paid sick leaves provided to employees who contracted COVID-19.”
The GSIS shall “directly compensate any government employee who contracted COVID 19 for all salary deductions upon exhaustion of the paid the sick leaves of the government employee” through its P500 million appropriation.
However, Macasaet suggested that the P500 million for GSIS be transferred to SSS so that more private workers who may contract COVID-19 will benefit, explaining government employees will be granted additional leave credits.
"You can use the P500 million allocated for government employees to be given instead to SSS so that the private sector will benefit from it," said Macasaet.
AAMBIS-OWA party-list Rep. Sharon Garin, who is part of DCC’s economic stimulus package cluster, vowed to consider the suggestion of the GSIS president.
"We'll take note and we'll discuss it with the authors and the committee members so they can assess," said Garin.
ACT CIS party-list Rep. Rep. Eric Yap, a chairman of the House committee on appropriations and vice chairman of the House committee on games and amusement, urged Dominguez to reconsider the resumption of operations of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGOs) to help raise funds for the government during the pandemic.
“Because as we know these days, there are many industries that are closed. Kasi saying din ‘yung income na P500 million to P600 million monthly. Provided ‘yung mga tao i-provide ng shuttle galing bahay, walang mag roam around, lahat mag-follow ng instructions sa ECQ,” Yap told the TWG meeting.
Dominguez thanked Yap for the suggestion, giving assurance that the matter about the POGO industry will most likely be taken up by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) in their next meeting.
But House Minority Leader and Manila Rep. Bienvenido “Benny” Abante Jr. cautioned government against allowing POGOs to reopen given the issues involving the industry, such as non-remittance of revenues and non-payment of taxes of those working in the controversial enterprise.
“Resolve issues first, allow operations later,” Abante stressed. “In hearings in the House and the Senate, we have been told that one, we cannot even properly keep track of and document POGO workers; and two, that we have not been able to collect taxes from them.”
“If that is the case, then allowing them to resume operations ostensibly so the government can earn revenues to help battle the
COVID-19 outbreak makes little sense,” Abante pointed out.
Cayetano affirmed that the House is ready to fast-track discussions of PERA in case it is certified urgent by the President.
He noted the importance of giving flexibility to the Executive given the constraints amid the ongoing pandemic.
"The less urgent or time-bound it is, meaning if we have 48 instead of 24 hours to finish it, the better I think, the quality of the bill.
But if we are given only a certain amount of time, then it's but correct to give the Executive more flexibility and then just to work with them on it," said Cayetano.
In the meantime, Cayetano said the government is weighing the insight of health experts to "balance and put together the public health strategy with the strategy for economics."
"Pwede mong buhayin ang ekonomiya pero hindi mo pwedeng buhayin ang patay. But at the same time, hindi ka pwedeng iligtas sa virus, mamatay ka naman sa gutom," Cayetano stressed.
During the meeting, Garin recommended to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Gov. Benjamin Diokno to make a special fund to accommodate the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), make credit line available and flexible and make borrowing as user-friendly as possible.
“What members of the committee are trying to do is to change whatever we need to change to adjust to the new normal. There will be massive layoffs, give them time and subsidy to MSMEs so that they do not let go of their employees and businesses for the next two to three months,” said Garin.
Quimbo pressed on having a legislation that would create a sound economic stimulus plan to set aside subsidies targeting the owners of the MSMEs.
According to LandBank President Cecilia Borromeo, there are more than 5,500 MSMEs in the LandBank portfolio.
Most of them are participants in the agri-business chain that borrow for working capital or for expansion or acquisition of additional equipment, she said.
Salceda proposed to the LandBank and the BSP to condone the outstanding balance of the agrarian reform beneficiaries to give farmers greater flexibility during the COVID-19 situation. “I would just like to ask you to prepare a position paper so that we can study if there is any legislation that you need so that we can pursue wholesale agrarian reform land acquisition loans, and look for all non-cash expenditure that will add to the vitality of the economy without asking too much from the government,” said Salceda.
For his part, Deputy Speaker and Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte Jr., coming from a rice-producing province, raised that farmers are the most affected during this crisis.
“It’s about time that we calibrate the rice industry amidst COVID-19. Now is the time to be self-reliant. We have the land, it’s just a matter of utilizing them,” said Villafuerte.
Dominguez then asserted that government should take the opportunity to begin consolidating farmers and managing them as a group.
He explained that under the current situation of small farming, the ideal volume nor the quality of produce is not achieved.
“The Department of Agriculture should start moving towards the idea of commercial farming. What is more important is the use of the land, not the ownership,” he said.
Meanwhile, Diokno noted that the government should prepare to be more agile as it will not be business as usual when the crisis ends. “We should take advantage of this crisis. What would be the new economy? How would it look like?” Diokno asked.
With this, Diokno urged that the Philippines should start shifting its dependence on cash to e-banking.
He stated that the government should work on accelerating digital transactions in the country.